Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ Tears Its Creator To Pieces
The Netflix special is a terrifying, frequently unhinged work of pandemic art.
Bo Burnham wants to eat himself alive.
This has always been the prerogative of the stand-up, a multi-hyphenate talent who sings, writes, acts and directs. Burnham never makes a joke without immediately pointing out the ways in which it is a joke — not bridging the gap between his microphone and his adoring crowd but drawing attention to it with one long finger.
That self-destruction is evident in Make Happy, an acclaimed 2016 special which didn’t so much meet audience expectations as it did turn them inside out, directing the critical gaze back on his fans and culminating in a long, Kanye West-inspired song that probed at the very foundation of comedy. It’s even evident in the relatively straight-faced Eighth Grade, Burnham’s directorial debut and a scorching look at the ways that we learn to live with ourselves in the face of mounting social pressure.
And yet Burnham’s deconstructionist urges have never been as clear as they are on Inside, his latest stand-up special, filmed entirely in lockdown over the course of a year. Gone is the audience that Burnham once combatively engaged with, replaced by a sparingly used soundboard of applause and laughter. Thrown into isolation by the pandemic, his hair growing increasingly shaggy, Burnham has nowhere to turn but himself, upping the artifice and tonal left-turns and shredding his entire career to glorious pieces.
It’s the artistic equivalent of an online meltdown; a long, determined howl that would be concerning if it wasn’t also quite so funny.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
If that description makes Inside sound navel-gazing, then that’s precisely Burnham’s point. Whereas he once carefully used self-deprecation, setting up his own mythologies only to abruptly knock them down, now hurting himself is the focus of the entire project. Within ten minutes of Inside, Burnham has questioned the importance of art in a time of transition, unpacking his white privilege and umming and ahhing over whether or not to stay silent and hand the floor to someone else. And when he does decide to keep going, it’s not out of a shared idea of the good — it’s because without something to do, he’s bored and depressed.
This is the Burnham modus operandi laid bare: say something audacious, and then reveal the deeply craven and self-interested reasons for that audacity. It’s a constant wheeling back and forth between stating a premise and then stating its counter, the flow forever being interrupted, until a lopsided rhythm of destruction is established.
Authenticity isn’t so much the enemy of Inside as its unreachable destination.
Perhaps in the hands of another artist, such cycles would quickly grow boring and easy to predict. But Burnham is smart enough to know when he is required to shake things up a little, and just as the audience needs them most, hot streaks of sincerity come piercing out of the melange of self-hatred and malaise — a song about Facetiming with your mum; a vulnerable monologue delivered into a mirror; a spoof educational ditty for children that left turns into a Marxist anthem about exploitation and bloodshed.
In that way, Inside is as close as any visual artist has gotten to replicating the styles of essayist David Foster Wallace and poet John Ashbery on the screen. Like those two, Burnham is constantly in the process of interrupting himself; like those two, his game is one of a complexity that eventually buckles under its own weight. The goal is not to keep your eye on the strands of the story as they are unspooled, but to let them slide through your fingers, feeling rather than thinking through the untethering.
When all is said and done, Inside is not an assemblage of ideas, it’s an assemblage of images, the most striking of which sees Burnham seated in front of one of his earliest YouTube videos, his back to the camera — a vision of an artist assessing themselves, their purpose, and their reasons for continuing, and coming up with hands painfully empty.
A Work of Pandemic Art That’s Not About the Pandemic
If Inside has an overall “point” it’s that the search for the ultimate, most truthful self is impossible. Authenticity isn’t so much the enemy of Inside as its unreachable destination. Skits and songs about fake woke marketing executives and the Instagram feeds of white women probe at the essential non-essence of people; how often we lie to ourselves, and how difficult it is to work out which thoughts are our own and which we have cribbed from the oversaturated world around us.
When you strip away the contingent parts of yourself — the noise, the desire for attention, the deafening cry of social media — what are you left with? According to Burnham, the answer is simple: not much of anything at all.
Of course, the horror that comes along with searching for something real and stable within ourselves will be familiar to anyone who tried to re-invent themselves during the coronavirus outbreak. That makes Inside a pandemic work of art, but only tangentially. The isolation of lockdown is Inside‘s prism, not its focus; the means through which our failure to connect with any internal stability makes itself terrifyingly clear.
And what do we do when confronted with that vacuum at the centre of ourselves? Burnham doesn’t know. The final image of Inside isn’t some triumphant thesis. It’s a portrait of an artist slipping further into the fake, watching an audience watching a screen, the sound of artificial endorsement ringing out over a suddenly black screen. After all, what can you do but laugh?
Joseph Earp is a writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.